Activists try local approach; Gay-marriage foes contact candidates

The Boston Globe
May 3, 2009 Sunday


BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1466 words

Two years after its campaign failed to bring a gay marriage ban to the Massachusetts ballot, the organization that spearheaded the effort by collecting 123,356 petition signatures has repackaged itself and is focusing on more local political endeavors, offering support to candidates for selectmen and School Committee in a number of area communities.

Leaders of the Coalition for Marriage & Family, an outgrowth of VoteOnMarriage.org, hope the change will build a strong grass-roots momentum. But the shift to local campaigns has left many candidates scratching their heads and wondering where the connection is between trash fees and transgender rights.

The organization has contacted candidates in Acton, Framingham, Natick, and Shrewsbury, among other communities.

Andrew MacIsaac, who is running for the Board of Selectmen in Shrewsbury, describes himself as a prolife Catholic. Yet he wonders why the coalition sent him an offer of campaign support along with a 12-question survey that focused mostly on hot-button issues for the organization, including gay rights and abortion. Selectmen are more concerned with nuts and bolts issues, such as taxes and complaints about unruly dogs, he noted.

“The question that stood out was having transgender or homosexual speakers coming to high school,” he said. “Why are you asking this? It’s not going to make any difference with the dog hearing.”

Lisa Barstow, a spokeswoman for the Woburn-based coalition, said its latest effort is a natural evolution from the VoteOnMarriage.org campaign.

“There was a lot of organic grass-roots interest in the marriage issue and once the issue had been put to rest, the notion was, `Where do we go from here? Where do these folks go who are all fired up?’ ” she said.

Barstow does not think that issues like family values and gay marriage are out of place on the local level.

“I think there’s different ways that we can gauge our success; we’re here and we’re growing and we’re educating people,” she said. “We’re trying to get neighbors to talk to neighbors . . . some of the most fruitful conversations happen at the local Shaw’s.”

However, most of the candidates reached for comment in area communities expressed the same reaction as MacIsaac.

Though the coalition’s survey included a cover letter offering financial support, volunteers, and advice for candidates who shared the coalition’s “pro-family legislative agenda” including “support for traditional marriage, the sanctity of life, and common sense government,” the candidates said they were unsure why they had been targeted by an organization focused on issues often debated at the state and federal levels.

“They were asking for information that I didn’t feel pertained to the election,” said Bob Edwards, who recently lost his bid for a Framingham School Committee seat. “It seems like they had money to spend and help to offer.”

VoteOnMarriage.org was the official sponsoring organization for the Massachusetts Protection of Marriage Amendment, which would have changed the state’s constitution to rescind the rights of gay people to marry. But the issue never made it to the ballot last fall, after being blocked in the 2007 Constitutional Convention by state legislators.

Barstow sees the focus on local politics as an effort to attract candidates and spur activism.

“We do have a concern about recruiting candidates and electing candidates that reflect the views of the members,” she said. “We want to inspire and encourage citizen involvement.”

Its newly active supporters include Natick resident Ed Sharib, who said he likes that an organization reflecting his values can provide him with information on issues he doesn’t have time to research himself.

Sharib said the coalition had urged support for Natick Board of Selectmen candidate Tony Lista, who lost to incumbent Joshua Ostroff in the town’s March 31 election. Sharib spent several days holding signs for Lista. Before the campaign, Sharib had never met Lista. He didn’t even know about the election.

“I definitely wouldn’t be as active” without the coalition, said Sharib. “You learn more about what’s going on in the community when you tell people what you’re doing.” Sharib said his political activities started when he heard about the coalition on a Christian talk-radio station, WEZE-AM. His work has led to conversations with parents from his kid’s soccer team and passersby who noticed the Tony Lista signs in front of Sharib’s Speen Street home.

Lista said he wasn’t aware of the coalition’s support during his campaign, and had not returned the questionnaire. His only contact with the group was a casual conversation during a Natick Republican Town Committee get-together, when someone from the coalition – he can’t remember the name – asked whether he thought family was important. A father of four, he answered “yes,” Lista said. But beyond that, he said, he knows little about the group, and doesn’t see a place for values-based agendas in local politics.

“In the local environment, nothing you do in terms of policy has anything to do with these issues,” Lista said.

While Sharib’s new activism may show the effectiveness of the coalition’s grass-roots movement, its potential to affect policy via local candidates is less assured, according to people who track politics in Massachusetts.

Boards of selectmen spend their time dealing with the details of municipal operations, not with sensitive social issues like abortion and gay rights, they note. And while school boards in other states have taken on such emotionally charged issues as creationism vs. evolution in setting curriculum standards, the Bay State’s more liberal underpinnings would seem to decrease the likelihood of morality-based showdowns.

“My sense is that some of the more conservative organizations have not had a great response in Massachusetts,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “I think districts have been broadening rather than narrowing, as far as a family definition.”

Massachusetts Municipal Association spokesperson Patricia Mikes said she’s never heard of an organization centered on anything “other than municipal business” reach out to selectmen.

There’s at least one local candidate who has responded to the coalition, however.

Rashid Shaikh is running against MacIsaac for Board of Selectmen in Shrewsbury’s election Tuesday. Like MacIsaac, Shaikh has expressed conservative social values. But unlike MacIsaac, he sat down with the Coalition for Marriage & Family’s executive director, Chanel Prunier, for 45 minutes over coffee to discuss how his ideals match the organization’s, and how the coalition could help his campaign.

“She’s fiscally conservative and this is how the whole thing started,” said Shaikh, who gave Prunier some of his lawn signs to distribute in Shrewsbury.

Though he has accepted the coalition’s support, Shaikh said, he is clear in differentiating the line between fiscally and socially conservative ideals.

Shaikh doesn’t believe debate over issues like gay marriage do much to advance the welfare of a community, he said, because they detract from more important issues.

“I don’t believe in playing with emotions. I believe in focusing on facts,” said Shaikh, explaining his interest in the municipal government’s finances.

Last year, the Massachusetts Independent Political Action Committee for Working Families, which works closely with the coalition to support candidates, according to the coalition’s solicitation letter, gave out $37,402 in cash and in-kind contributions to 38 Democratic and Republican candidates running for state seats, according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. None of the candidates were involved in local races.

The organization has paid Prunier $6,000 in stipends since 2006.

This year’s candidate financing disclosures haven’t been released, and Barstow wouldn’t give details about the coalition’s support for candidates.

She chose instead to outline the coalition’s objectives, including opposition to a bill on Beacon Hill that would expand laws against discrimination and hate crimes to protect transgender people. One of the bill’s features would allow transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, thus reducing the possibility of harassment.

The coalition opposes the bill and hopes to “rescue the ladies rooms of Massachusetts from any man being able to enter,” said Barstow. “Any man can say, `I’m transgendered.’ It’s just rife for abuse,” she said. The group recently sponsored a State House lobby day, which Sharib attended.

Barstow sees the group providing a place for citizens who share their values.

“People feel underrepresented and now they have a home,” she said. “A place to coalesce.”

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